By: Avi Mendelson  | 

YU is Going Global

It’s a challenging time to be a university. Brick and mortar institutions of higher education are increasingly facing an existential identity crisis with the inexorable rise of online education.  The pragmatic and enhanced form of learning that online degree programs can provide forces universities to figure out how they will remain relevant in a virtual world where information is open to all.  But as challenging as it is, it is also a time of opportunity.  New markets are opening up as more people are seeking access to higher education.  Universities must assert themselves, if they wish to be competitive in this emerging market, by developing their own online learning programs.

It’s a particularly challenging time to be Yeshiva University.  On top of the struggles facing all universities, YU was recently slammed with a crippling financial crisis.  This crisis is not only forcing the university to decrease spending, but also to reimagine itself.  Academic restructuring in the form of departmental downsizing will be supplemented with an increase in blended learning, where class time is complemented with an online learning portion.  It’s unchartered territory, rife with risks and rewards, that Yeshiva University has no choice but to navigate.  Making forward-thinking decisions now will secure it a place in the world of higher education of the future.  Failure to do so will leave it stranded behind as progress in higher education continues on its course.

The university is making one such decision with the development of its newest project, YU Global.  With the stated goal of “creating engaging, innovative, and rigorous learning experiences for students on YU’s existing campuses and around the world in online certificate, degree and ‘life-long learning’ (no-credit) programs,” YU Global is a response both to the need to develop blended courses and to create online master’s and certificate programs to tap into the growing demand for online education opportunities both domestically and in overseas markets.  Essentially, YU Global will be filling the role of catering to all things online, a role that is long overdue.  YU has for some time been utilizing online resources for its courses. Last year, the Hebrew department experimented with online learning.  In the beginning of the summer, Azrieli announced an online doctoral degree in Jewish Education Leadership and Innovation.  And there has been a slew of blended courses offered this semester in English, Computer Science, Economics, Accounting, Marketing, and IBC.  Now, YU Global is providing a formal resource for all these operations.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Dr. Scott Goldberg, who was appointed as Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning in fall of 2012. His position foreshadowed the creation of YU Global, as he was tasked with advancing the teaching and learning of YU to a 21st century model of online learning while creating educational programs to market abroad.

The project is very much like a startup.  A team of twelve was assembled in the beginning of the academic year, and they are supported solely by external seed funding and philanthropy.  Other than the three higher-up executives, the staff is a young cohort, some of them recent graduates from YU.  And the project is still in an embryonic stage of development—in terms of mission and logistics.  Just two weeks ago, the younger staff was moved from the fifth floor of Belfer to their bullpen on the thirteenth floor, a complex of cubicles that is conducive to collaboration and communication.  And they’re hard at work—first figuring out what they’re doing, then doing it, and then figuring it out once again—with the goal to launch the project in early 2015.

So what exactly are they working on up there on the thirteenth floor?  YU Global’s initial portfolio of master’s degrees and certificates includes Software Development, Mobile App Development, eCommerce, Big Data Analytics, and different areas of business and law.  These programs are targeted at both domestic and international students, including YU students.  Right now, the objective is not to add to the portfolio, but to sell it.  To do so, the team is concentrating efforts on marketing itself to universities, corporations, and government agencies worldwide.  Much of its focus is on finding partners in China, but Dr. Goldberg and the team are also looking at potential opportunities to partner in Poland, India, Israel, and Brazil.  No matter where they travel, they are seeking to increase YU’s brand awareness and develop relationships with prospective partners.  One strategy proposed for doing so would be to recruit foreign students for graduate programs on the New York campuses who would then return home and spread the word about their education at Yeshiva University.  However they do it, building these relationships will be crucial to YU Global’s success. Tacked to one of the cubicle walls is a graphic of the world that highlights emerging “big cities” of the future.  YU Global’s dream is to be able to place their sticker next to these locations.

If all turns out as planned, YU Global will bring in a lot of revenue, which will help stabilize the university’s financial situation.  But that is not the only way that YU Global will have an impact on YU students.

In mid-September of this year, the Board of Trustees directed the academic side of the university to do its share in balancing the budget by refinancing.  One of the ways provided to do so was to increase the blended course offerings, which would ideally save money by relocating a portion of class time to an online setting.  The provosts, after meeting with the Board, relayed this message to the heads of each of the academic departments in a faculty council meeting, indicating that the department heads would need to consider how they would incorporate blended classes into their respective curricula.  At that point in time, thirty professors had already been working with YU Global to convert their classes to blended classes, and more will be either encouraged or directed to follow suit.

This, then, is the other purpose that YU Global fulfills. YU Global will utilize resources and skills that are already in use to produce overseas online degree programs and assist professors in transitioning their classes to include an online component.

These blended classes, of course, are promoted positively as upgrading the YU student’s learning experience to the 21st century, with multimedia learning tools and a learning platform that will allow for flexibility.  But these courses are obviously responding to the university’s financial struggles, and this leads to understandable skepticism.  Is YU Global simply facilitating the replacement of our cherished classroom learning experience with a reduced-quality, cost-efficient online one?

Professor Gillian Steinberg is teaching a blended First Year Writing course, and she doesn’t think so. Her class uses eCampus, YU’s online learning platform similar to Angel but powered by a different learning management system called Moodle (which eventually is going to replace Angel completely).  Her class was advertised as meeting on Fridays from 9:30 am to 12:00 pm, but in actuality, the class only meets for an hour and a half, and the rest of the time is counted online.  When she announced this the first day, the class responded with applause—they were not made aware that they were taking a blended class, but the flexibility was obviously a bonus.  The online component of her class is primarily focused on the discussion board which has a much more facile interface than Angel.  Professor Steinberg posts readings and prompts to the website and students are required to submit their own response before class.  Chayim Rosensweig YC ‘17, a student taking Steinberg’s class, says the online component is useful in that it forces students to prepare for a classroom discussion beforehand. “Instead of producing undeveloped thoughts on the spot, students contribute developed opinions to the discussion and become more involved,” said Rosensweig.  To this end, Professor Steinberg requires that students not only post their own responses, but that they also reply to at least one other student’s response as a way to begin the conversation before class.  Moreover, the website is programmed in a way that delays the student’s response from being published for thirty minutes after being submitted.  The goal is that students are really thinking about what they are writing and responding, and this all happens before class.

From Steinberg’s perspective, the blended learning has even more benefits.  The online format allows for everyone to participate in class discussion, which is often not the case in face-to-face class time during which quieter students are usually sidelined by more actively participatory students.  Based off of these online discussions, she can see what students are thinking about and where they might be confused, so she can then tailor the upcoming class to these specific questions.  She can also gauge how each student is progressing individually, which allows her to identify students who need more assistance earlier on in the course, as opposed to waiting until the first essay is due to find out who needs more help.  Additionally, Steinberg can save precious class time by assigning writing activities online.  Now, faster students do not have to waste time waiting for the rest of the class to finish, and slower students can spend more time writing without the pressure of being the last ones to hold up the class.

Steinberg is also very confident in YU Global’s technology specialists who assisted her in the development of the blended class.  She has been working closely with Aiya Port, who joined the YU Global team in July.  Port made sure to sit down with Steinberg and understand her teaching style and philosophy for a writing course before even discussing how they would implement technology.  “[Port] doesn't merely understand the technology, but also really understands education.  And I've felt that we've had a great partnership: she trusts my disciplinary knowledge and brings her skills to helping me shape the course I want to teach,” said Steinberg. And the technology specialists have been there along the way to smooth out kinks in the system.  When Steinberg was dissatisfied with the inability to write comments between the lines on students’ writing assignments, the technology specialists showed her how to insert Google Docs into the platform to accomplish this.  Technology assistance from YU Global will be crucial to the success of this project, and from Steinberg’s experiences, it looks hopeful.

But not everyone is as optimistic about the blended learning model.  Another blended course that was offered this semester is Intermediate Economics, taught by Professor William Hawkins.  The class meets once a week, and students also have videos to watch.  As opposed to Steinberg’s blended class, in which the online portion is meant to enhance face-to-face class time, students in the economics class use the online portion to gain information.  As one student in the class points out, the drawback to this model is that face-to-face class time is often spent going over the video segment.  This is either because students do not put in the required effort to watch and comprehend the videos or simply because this method of learning information is just not ideal.  While in class you can ask a question when you do not understand something and can expect an immediate response; this is not so when watching videos.  This is frustrating both for the students who understood the videos and now have to listen to the professor explain it once again, as well as for the professor, who does not want to waste class time reviewing the videos, but knows that if he continues teaching, there will be students who are left behind.

Despite this setback, Professor Hawkins points out that he has covered the same amount of material as in previous years and that student performance on his midterm exceeded any other class he has taught (both at YU and elsewhere).  He did, however, voice frustration with the continual technical problems of eCampus as the YU Global team feels out how to best utilize its learning tools.  And, poignantly, he noted that, with a decrease in class time, there is less of an opportunity to observe a student experience the “aha” moment of learning—one of the greatest pleasures for a teacher.

Classes like this complicate the picture that the work YU Global will do to blend classes is for students’ educational sake.  While students’ educational experience can be debased in such a class, the university saves money by paying one professor to alternate between YC and SCW campuses to teach it, instead of having two professors each teach a separate class.

The advantage of a blended course obviously depends on the type of class and the way in which the professor utilizes these new online tools.  But while the merits of blended learning at YU may be up for debate, blended learning certainly isn’t going anywhere.  With the money invested in YU Global, the expectation is that YU will continue to expand its portfolio of online and blended classes. Professors will either be directed to seek YU Global’s assistance in converting their classes to a blended style or will do so voluntarily, and even those who adapt their courses voluntarily will likely do so out of a sense of necessity.  This upcoming semester will not see a significant increase in blended course offerings, due to the fact that the university is focusing efforts on creating blended courses for the summer and next year.  Students should expect to see about twelve courses offered over this summer.  A third of those will be in Syms, two will be prerequisites for the new graduate program in Speech Pathology, and the rest will be YC courses whose professors have expressed interest in experimenting with these new methodologies.

Of course, there is obvious concern that the need to respond to the university’s financial crisis will direct too much of YU Global’s attention to marketing their degree programs and not enough to ensuring the quality of the blended educational experience.  But the reality is, YU’s financial crisis perforce makes providing top quality educational content second in priority to saving the school from bankruptcy.  Here’s to hoping that YU Global can accomplish both.